’Hoo-rizons: Former Football Star Ray Roberts Now Clearing Different Paths

'Hoo-rizons:
Ray Roberts

After plowing the way for running backs at UVA and in the NFL, the former (and once-reluctant) offensive lineman is running interference for children with intellectual disabilities in his role with Special Olympics.

Ray Roberts thought he had blown his chance to play football at the University of Virginia. The chance to become the first member of his family to graduate from college. The chance for a better life.

During a late-summer practice in 1987, Roberts – just starting his first year at UVA – got into a scuffle with a teammate, sparking a full-on fracas between members of the offensive and defensive lines that Cavalier head football coach George Welsh was right in the middle of.

“Coach Welsh was screaming at me, ‘Stop the fighting, Roberts!’” recalled Roberts in a high-pitched voice, imitating Welsh’s. “But I didn’t hear him and the next thing I know he’s climbing on my back and hitting me with his hat and telling me to get off the field.”

When Roberts tried to return to practice after things had calmed down, Welsh again told him to get lost. It was at that moment that Roberts believed he might have to head home to Asheville, North Carolina.

“I thought, ‘Did I just lose my scholarship?’” Roberts said.

As it turned out, Roberts hadn’t blown his chance. Welsh just wanted him to cool down for the day.

Thirty-one years later, Roberts and the dozens of former teammates he remains in touch with still chuckle over the incident.

“I’ll never forget it,” former UVA quarterback Shawn Moore said. “When George jumped on him, everyone was shocked – but deep down everyone was dying laughing.”

“I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard the story,” said former UVA defensive end Chris Slade, who was two years behind Roberts. “It was legendary. Everybody knew about it and still talks about it.”

Even Welsh.

“I remember jumping on his back,” Welsh said. “That’s a true story. It was just one of those spur-of-the-moment things.”

Roberts did eventually return to the field and Welsh’s good graces, and went on to become a first-team All-American. He was drafted in the first round by the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and was later part of the offensive line that helped Detroit Lions Hall-of-Famer Barry Sanders rush for more than 2,000 yards when he was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1997.

Discussing his football accomplishments isn’t what gets Roberts’ juices flowing, though. While he’s proud of everything he did on the gridiron, he seems most excited when he talks about his current endeavor, which focuses on giving students with intellectual disabilities chances of their own.

Since July 2017, Roberts has worked for Special Olympics as the director of Unified Champion Schools for urban development. A Unified Champion School uses a combination of unified sports (sports combining students with and without intellectual disabilities), inclusive leadership programs and whole-school engagement as a way to promote acceptance, respect and inclusion for all students.

The 6-foot-6 Roberts, who weighed 320 pounds during his playing days, wants students with intellectual disabilities to figuratively jump on his back so he can lead them out of the shadows.

In non-Unified Champion Schools, “We put [students with intellectual disabilities] in classrooms and hallways in school that nobody goes down,” he said. “We don’t let them eat in the same lunch room. They don’t get to wear their high school colors on teams.

“So to know you’re giving them the opportunity to get high-fives walking down the hallway, to have friends to sit with at the lunch table, to be in classrooms with their peers and creating lifelong relationships, is unbelievably gratifying.

“It doesn’t make the work easy. It does get frustrating at times and hard. But the goal is to get inclusion to that one person. That’s what keeps me going.”

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Roberts, second from left, formed lifetime friendships with many of his UVA teammates, including former quarterback Shawn Moore, second from right. (Contributed photo)

Roberts formerly served as the UVA football program’s director of life skills from 2011 to 2012, but has primarily worked with K-12 education since he retired from the NFL in 2000. Roberts said working for Special Olympics is a way to help people whose voices aren’t loud enough to be heard.

“They have great things to say and have unbelievable gifts and talents,” said Roberts, whose current job takes him to schools around the country, “but just because of their circumstances – whether it’s socioeconomic or intellectual disabilities – they just get discounted and marginalized. That has become my purpose – to serve those people.”

Roberts said the roots of that purpose can be traced back to his time at UVA.

As the son of a janitor and a maid, he didn’t feel like he fit in when he first arrived on Grounds.

Luckily, Roberts said he had had people in his life, like Welsh and former UVA defensive line coach Danny Wilmer, who made him believe otherwise.

The hulking Roberts, who wore No. 72 on the field because of his admiration for former Dallas Cowboy great Ed “Too Tall” Jones, recalled walking into University Hall with his shoulders slouched so that he wouldn’t seem quite so imposing, so he would fit in better.

“Coach Wilmer came up behind me and grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled my shoulders back and said, ‘I want you to walk tall like you belong here, just like everyone else!’” Roberts said. “He said, ‘This is your locker room, your weight room, your football field, your jersey, your helmet.’

“Just those small words of encouragement gave me a sense of belonging, like I was connected to something. To this day, that was one of the most powerful interactions I’ve ever had with anybody in my life. He just took this kid who came from a really poor family with no resources. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. He and Coach Welsh took a chance on me.”

It was a gamble that didn’t look very good early on when Roberts landed on academic probation and nearly flunked out of school.

“For one spring football season, I didn’t play football and just focused on academics,” Roberts said. “I couldn’t go to practice and had to work out on my own. But it saved me.”

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It was also around that time that Welsh approached Roberts about switching from the defensive line to the offensive line.

It was a tough sell.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m playing offensive line,’” Roberts said. “I was ready to leave the school, but Coach Welsh brought me in and told me about Ron Mattes, who had played defensive line his whole career [at UVA] before moving to the NFL. He said he feels if he had played offensive line the whole time, he would have been a higher draft pick.

“And we were recruiting Terry Kirby at the time and the pitch was, ‘If we’re going to have an All-American running back, we’re going to need an All-American left tackle.’”

Sealing the deal was an unexpected visit from his father, Ray Roberts Sr., who, upon hearing that his son was thinking of transferring to the University of Tennessee so that he could play defense, drove six hours straight from Asheville to give his two cents.

The younger Roberts had just finished working out and was arriving home at Lile dormitory when he noticed the 1969 gold Pontiac Grand Prix with a black vinyl top parked in the fire lane. “I said, ‘Man, what the heck is my dad doing here?’”

Roberts said their whole conversation lasted 15 minutes.

“He said, ‘You gave them your word that you were going to come here and they’re giving you an opportunity. I don’t care if they want you to be the holder for the field goals. You’re staying here at UVA,’” Roberts said. “Once that happened, there was no going against that. My dad was a self-made dude who worked really hard, and to him your word meant something. He just wanted to make sure I would be a man of my word.”

With that, Roberts Sr. hopped back in his Pontiac and headed home to Asheville and “Little Ray” dedicated himself to becoming an offensive lineman.

Initially, Moore – who had helped recruit Roberts to UVA – wondered what Welsh and Wilmer had seen in Roberts.

“I just had a hard time believing he could be an athlete,” Moore said. “He was just a big old pudgy kid. Little did I know.”

Roberts took naturally to his new position.

“He had a mean streak in him,” Welsh said. “When he got angry, he was a much better player.”

“Playing against Ray every day in practice for three years made the games easy on Saturdays,” said Slade, the defensive end, who went on to his own standout NFL career.

Roberts also developed into a team leader. Welsh recalled one especially lively practice in which Roberts took command. “He said, ‘Coach, don’t worry – ain’t nobody going to stop us!’” Welsh said.

By his junior year, Roberts was being talked about as a top NFL prospect. But he said, more than anything, it was then that he realized the huge responsibility he was bearing in his quest to earn a college degree.

“I took on this idea that I needed to succeed academically even more so than athletically so that the people from my high school, the people from my neighborhood, the people from my family could see, ‘Oh, OK, that’s a way out. If Ray can do it, why can’t I do it?’” said Roberts, who majored in rhetoric and communication studies.

As a fourth-year player, Roberts was a first-team All-American and subsequently was drafted with the 10th overall pick by the Seahawks.

Slade, who played nine years in the NFL, dreaded going up against Roberts, his former teammate.

“He’s the first guy in the game who I really didn’t want to beat,” Slade said. “I mean, I knew I had to try and beat him – that was my job – but I didn’t want to beat him because it felt bad. I didn’t like competing against him. It was like fighting your brother.”

Roberts played his final five years with the Detroit Lions, whose roster at times included fellow UVA alumni Herman Moore, Matt Blundin, Greg Jeffries, Chris Harrison, Duane Ashman, Germane Crowell and Don Majkowski. “It was like coming home,” Roberts said. “It really settled me in my career because I was around so many people I knew.”

After retiring in 2000, Roberts was flummoxed as to what to do next. But after talking with friends and family, he realized he needed to work in some way with young people.

That led to a vision he had for opening a school of his own.

With that in mind, Roberts returned to school to the University of Washington to get a master’s degree. During that time, the father of three became especially interested in K-12 education, as well as diversity access and inclusion.

Roberts with his son Slade, a second-year UVA student who works as the football team’s manager. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

After earning his master’s, Roberts worked at Microsoft as a diversity inclusion specialist while also coaching football and girls basketball.

“My purpose became, ‘How do I bring resources to the most marginalized people?’” he said. “I knew what it was like to be poor or from a certain neighborhood and people aren’t interested in what you have to say.”

It was after serving as ambassador for the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle in 2017 that Roberts was recruited to join the organization full-time. Marc Edenzon, the president and managing director of Special Olympics North America, was impressed by a talk Roberts had given.

Edenzon said Roberts has been a “dynamic” addition.

“Ray’s ability to connect with youth in our Unified Champion Schools Initiative has been fundamental to his success in supporting change in school climates for entire school communities as they embrace the acceptance of their fellow youth with intellectual disabilities,” Edenson said. “Ray’s work with our athletes and the youth of today is the foundation for the future of our movement.”

Roberts said it’s been a perfect fit.

“This is the school that I had envisioned,” he said. “My vision was having a real brick-and-mortar building, but now the whole entire country is my schoolhouse. I get to interact with students, superintendents, principals and get to have an impact on the environment there.

“It’s awesome. The thing that’s cool is you feel like you are part of a team and are doing something bigger than yourself. Ultimately, that benefits everybody – but you’re doing it for the benefit of folks who deserve it the most.”

Roberts said having a UVA degree has helped him open doors he once believed were nailed shut.

“People see you’re the football dude and want to have you in the office and talk football,” he said. “But then they see that you have a degree from UVA. With the power and reputation that it has, they start to realize that there’s more to this dude than just being able to bang into another 300-pound dude.”

Slade said he isn’t surprised by Roberts’ life-after-football path. “He’s always been somebody who’s wanted to help kids who aren’t as fortunate and lucky,” he said.

Moore said Roberts is the first person he calls when something is bothering him. “He can talk you through things,” he said. “He’s like a baby giant. He’s amazing. He’s groomed himself into an incredible man.”

Last weekend, Roberts returned to Grounds to visit his son, Slade – a second-year student whom he named after his former teammate, and who now serves as a football manager – and to cheer the ’Hoos in their win over the University of North Carolina.

“I will bleed orange and blue until the day I die,” Roberts said. “It outweighs all the other things I’ve done. The one thing that I love and hang in my house is my UVA degree because, to me, that was where my life changed for the better.

“It was a launching pad for greatness.”

When Roberts thinks back to that skirmish on the practice field over three decades ago, he lets out a hearty laugh.

“They took a chance on me,” Roberts said, “in more than one way.”

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